Europe in My Region

That the ongoing conflict in Ukraine is having some seriously detrimental effects on EU-Russia relations is nothing new. But I think we’ve heard enough about this so-called ”new Cold War”.

This is a repost of Playing with Russia in the Baltic Sea Sandpit: Challenges and Opportunities, originally published on LinkedIn by Clarissa Hirst (@clarissa_hirst, LinkedIn), and submitted to the Europe in My Region 2016 blogging competition.

I think we should take a break for a moment from discussions about increasing tensions in the Baltic Sea. Discussions about the potential of future Swedish and Finnish NATO membership. About Russian military aircraft incursions and submarines popping up in Swedish waters. About how Russia is threatening European and global security with its aggressive and expansionist foreign policy. Not because these things shouldn’t be discussed, but because despite the political situation and the media hype, cooperation with Russia is something that is sorely needed at the regional level.

The issues facing inhabitants of spaces such as the Baltic Sea Region (BSR) are not limited by the imaginary boundary lines we humans draw that divide peoples, regions or nation-states. They affect us all: our families, our friends, and future generations. If we are to combat the degradation of the Baltic Sea marine environment, to build cross-border transportation links, renewable energy supply chains and sustainable tourism networks, and to promote smart labour and development, then cooperation across borders is required. European and Russian actors need to work together to solve these common problems.

If we are to combat the degradation of the Baltic Sea marine environment, to build cross-border transportation links, renewable energy supply chains and sustainable tourism networks, and to promote smart labour and development, then cooperation across borders is required.

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Map of the Baltic Sea Region. Credit: Wikipedia
Although Russian actors are involved in many EU projects in the BSR, they are often unable to receive the same level of funding or status as their European counterparts. This is, of course, because Russia is not a member of the EU. So one could argue that this is perfectly logical. Why would Russian organisations be treated the same as those in EU countries, especially at the present when EU-Russia relations are tense?

Well, let me flip the switch and pose the question: why shouldn’t Russian organisations in the BSR be treated the same way? How can Russia be only somewhat involved in improving transportation corridors, intercultural awareness, economic growth, clean energy, a strong labour market, or the biodiversity of a threatened marine ecosystem?

How can Russia be only somewhat involved in improving transportation corridors, intercultural awareness, economic growth, clean energy, a strong labour market, or the biodiversity of a threatened marine ecosystem?

If we look at environmental issues in the BSR, Russia is a key player. Russia is certainly not the only country polluting the Baltic Sea, but how can such a critical problem ever be addressed without Russia? HELCOM found that annual emissions of nitrogen oxides from all HELCOM Contracting Parties except Russia were lower in 2013 than in 1995 and Russia’s nitrogen oxides and ammonia emissions significantly increased from the year 2006. Russia is a part of the solution just as much as it is a part of the problem.

Yet the challenges to involving Russian actors as equal partners in EU projects will be difficult to overcome.

The Funding Challenge

The principal challenge is that of funding Russian actors, both due to Russia’s unwillingness to sign financing agreements and the fact that EU programmes often do not enable Russian organisations to become fully-fledged project partners.

That Russia itself impedes the involvement of its own regional actors in EU projects is evident from the TENTacle project that recently kicked off with Region Blekinge in Sweden as the Lead Partner. TENTacle is an Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme project and its 23 partners from 9 countries and 66+ associated partners are aiming to boost the development opportunities generated by the implementation of TEN-T core network corridors.

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Credit: tentacle.eu
Wiktor Szydarowski, who is managing the project, notes that a central challenge is the fact that Russia has not yet signed or ratified the Financing Agreement for the Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme, meaning that ENI funds are not yet available to Russian organisations who want to be involved in the Programme’s projects. The Transport Committee of Saint Petersburg, served by the city administration of Saint Petersburg, will be involved in TENTacle as an associated organisation. However, the nature and extent of its participation is yet to be confirmed as the project is only in the early stages and negotiations with Russia over its involvement in the Programme are still underway.

Such roadblocks undoubtedly hinder the participation of Russian actors in the project. “There are certain possiblities, opportunities within the framework of the programme”, says Wiktor, “so we can involve [Russian organisations] or invite them to project events and pay for the accommodation and travel expenses. Or we can contract them as expertise providers.” But such possibilities will dependent upon how negotiations with Russia proceed.

Wiktor Szydarowski, TENTacle Project Manager. Credit: transbaltic.eu
Wiktor Szydarowski, TENTacle Project Manager. Credit: transbaltic.eu

The challenges facing the involvement of Russian organisations in EU-funded projects are also not confined to Russia. The Interreg South Baltic Programme project MARRIAGE successfully involved a Russian organisation in cooperation. Yet due to the fact that Kaliningrad’s Ministry of Regional Development was not a fully-fledged project partner, the cost of its involvement needed to be covered by MARRIAGE’s other partners from EU regions and the Ministry could therefore not be involved in all of the project’s activities. If Interreg Programmes do not enable Russian organisations to become fully-fledged partners then they cannot fully participate in projects, and this imbalance needs to be acknowledged.

An Optimistic Future?

Despite these challenges, cooperation with Russia is seen in a positive light. In spite of the formal and financial constraints that EU-funded projects face with regards to the involvement of Russian organisations, Wiktor Szydarowski believes that it is important to include Russian actors in projects such as TENTacle. His colleague Svetlana Sukhova, a former journalist from Kaliningrad who relocated to Sweden with her family around fifteen years ago, agrees. During her work as a translator and experience with several EU-funded projects in Sweden, Svetlana has noticed that there are cultural differences between Swedish and Russian people, but that overall people want to cooperate. At the end of the day, it comes down not to political relationships between big powers but to ordinary people and the common situations and challenges that we all face.

At the end of the day, it comes down not to political relationships between big powers but to ordinary people and the common situations and challenges that we all face.

The need for cooperation is not only expressed at the project level but also at the Programme level. Thorsten Kohlisch, Director of the Interreg South Baltic Programme’s Joint Technical Secretariat, believes that the desire among South Baltic project partners to cooperate with Russian actors has not decreased during the current funding period. It is also something that, in a practical capacity, he welcomes: “if the involvement of Russian partners can contribute to achieving impact on the environment, cooperation between universities, the labour market, SMEs, we strongly support the involvement of Russian institutions as associated partners.”

Thorsten Kohlisch, Director of the Interreg South Baltic Programme's Joint Technical Secretariat. Credit: southbaltic.eu
Thorsten Kohlisch, Director of the Interreg South Baltic Programme’s Joint Technical Secretariat. Credit: southbaltic.eu

Efforts on the part of actors such as the Swedish Institute are making it possible for Russian actors and other ”third countries” to receive funding to participate in future projects. Euroregion Baltic, currently being chaired by Kaliningrad, also offers a more inclusive framework whereby Russia is – in contrast to the Interreg Programmes – actually involved as a fully financed partner, which could serve as a model to emulate.

But challenges certainly remain. Negotiations between Russia and the Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme, as noted above, are still underway. Russian organisations are still not entitled to the same status as their EU partners. For Russian actors who require funding to get their projects off the ground, these are significant obstacles to overcome.

As an inhabitant of the BSR – whether you live in Blekinge, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Pomorskie or Kaliningrad – what would increased Russian involvement in EU projects mean? It may seem like something that doesn’t concern you all that much, but I beg to disagree. If we want the BSR to remain a region of growth and innovation, with a healthy ecosystem, an attractive tourist market and a strong labour market, then we need to encourage the equal participation of all actors.

So let’s remove the focus from power politics for a moment, and consider what we could gain from concentrating on the regional level and resolving mutual problems that we as individuals and communities face. Let’s try to play together in the same sandpit. EU policymakers need to discuss how to better involve Russian actors, who are vital to the success of regional security, growth and development. After all, as Svetlana Sukhova said to me, it’s about the bigger picture: ”It’s impossible for Russia not to be involved in EU projects,” she says. ”It will not work in the long-term.”

I am a PhD student researching European representations of Russian identity and their impact upon Russia’s involvement in EU projects. Do you know more? Comment on this post or lend your voice to the debate and tweet me @clarissa_hirst using the hashtag #EUinmyRegion

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